HR Professionals Must Lead With Fearless Confidence: Anjali Rao, Intel


By: Drishti Pant

It is not news that remote and the hybrid model of work has shifted how leaders and co-workers connect. With uncertainty still abound — and hybrid work set to be planned by the majority of employers over the coming months, a new culture-building approach is required.

In a recent interview with People Matters, Anjali Rao, Senior Director – HR, Intel India shares how leaders need to rethink culture for the new world of work. She also talks about building these cultural values among the new joinees in a remote work environment and discusses emerging learning trends.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

As some employers plan to return to the office, experts predict what they call ‘the great resignation’. The working professionals are choosing companies who offer more flexibility over others. What’s your take?

The pandemic has only strengthened, I would say, this entire notion of work, and has impacted our jobs, our profession, our careers – all of it really being an extension of our lives and therefore, creating a greater need for flexibility. More so in certain categories of the population than others.

Flexibility is not a privilege. It’s how we work now.

If I had to break it down and look at the facts and numbers: Some of the surveys that have been conducted in the recent past within Intel and outside indicate how successful remote working has been. Initially, we were just pushed into it and we had our own set of concerns, “I’m not going to see my team every day. How is this going to play out?” But within six months or fewer people got very comfortable with that model. 18 months later, people who were the most skeptical about remote work are now saying: “Actually, I want the flexibility. The flexibility helps me, it makes me more productive, allows me to invest in my learning, helps me rejuvenate and enhances my creativity and thinking.” Thus, creating a case for a hybrid work model. The pandemic has challenged old ways of working and the flexibility afforded by new models of work will be a key component of future talent strategies and business success.

With uncertainty still abound — and hybrid work set to be planned by the majority of employers over the coming months, a new culture-building approach is required. How should companies rethink culture?

Today, a lot of companies, including Intel, are at a point where they have realized that certain jobs can absolutely be done in a hybrid work model. In fact, there is evidence that hybrid work models can work really well and can be highly productive for your business, as well as for our employees. But for the successful implementation of the hybrid model, a culture shift is imperative. Key to this shift is enhancing decisive and timely communication. People should know what to expect. They should be involved in the entire process of change.

The next important step is ensuring that there is a support system in place for employees to be able to be efficient from anywhere. Leaders need to take care of all the resources that support a flexible work environment. It means investing in IT and infrastructure to improve the experience of working from home, bringing everyone closer together, and making work more accessible and collaborative for all.

The third critical element to ensure a culture shift to hybrid work is about learning to still build the connection and focus on the qualities of teamwork and collaboration. It requires an increased effort by leaders and managers to bring teams together, even if it is virtually. Meetings may no longer only be focused on work. You may just have meetings on a Friday to talk about, hey, how was the week? And how’s everybody doing today?

Informal conversations have also moved to the virtual mode and you would see leaders not necessarily setting up a meeting but just catching up with their teams and exchanging notes.

Lastly, in the hybrid work mode clarity of goals has become more critical than ever. People should be able to relate to what they need to achieve. The strategic objectives must be communicated with greater clarity. So, the clearer employees are, the easier it is for them to be able to fulfil those goals, no matter their location.

For the new world of work, I would also highlight the need for employers to focus more on diversity and inclusion, and wellness. Creating a safe place to work, where everyone feels a sense of belonging is a key mandate for not just HR leaders but each stakeholder.

At Intel, we’ve made goals around it and are continuously testing whether we are inclusive.

We’re still not out of the woods on this pandemic. So, we need to support our employees’ health, wellness, while at the same time ensure that we are firing on all cylinders when it comes to our work, our deliverables, and our products.

Especially for new joinees who have been onboarded during the pandemic and lockdown time, how have you ensured that they understand and adapt to Intel’s culture?

To be honest, there aren’t any tried and tested methods. But there has been some amount of experimentation and we can take those lessons to improve strategies.

At Intel, we hire a lot and we never really slowed down even during the pandemic. So, we continued to hire experienced folks, as well as college graduates, etc. We did a few things differently to ensure a smooth onboarding experience and establish a great cultural connection with new joinees. 

Complete acceptance and acknowledgment: To begin with, I think there was a general acknowledgment that it is going to be different, it is going to be challenging for people who are very new to the culture to come in and assimilate, especially when you’re completely virtual.

Everyone was well aware that if you don’t have robust methods to assimilate your newer people, you’re likely going to see some sort of dent occur in your cultural values.  Especially when it comes to some things that we absolutely cannot compromise on. For example, at Intel, our code of conduct is extremely important.

So, to put it simply, the challenge was: How do I know that I have Intel in my house and I’m reminded of Intel values while I’m sitting at home?

Enhanced employee orientations: Normally, we would have new employee orientations (NEOs) in a certain way. With remote work, we break up those modules into more in-depth modules, we have more interaction around it, and we give more examples. We almost kind of make sure that we handhold somebody new, till they feel comfortable and understand cultural nuances.

Onboarding experience in check: From the day we inform them about their selection, to the day of their joining, we ensure all the resources are shared and communication is done timely. Even the IT support system is built to ensure we don’t hinder their work at any step. All the joining formalities and resources to get them started are taken care of.

Strengthening employee and manager connection: For managers, the first few days are critical in enabling a seamless experience for new hires. This takes a little more effort because we are all virtual. As a manager, I have to ensure that I’ve introduced the person to the team. They know who their buddy is, they know what to expect. The manager has to be more available to answer queries. Over-communicate and be more available.

We continue to experiment with various small initiatives and are taking all the lessons from the journey to continuously improve the onboarding experience. Whatever has been working well, we are proliferating widely.

The rise of remote learning and an increased focus on skilling is also urging leaders to transform their learning culture. What trends do you think are emerging in the L&D space?

The learning style for everyone is unique. I’ve always believed that when it comes to learning, especially when it comes to adult learning, you reach a point where a lot of people kind of know what works for them the best and how they learn best – whether it’s classroom learning, talking to an expert, learning through coaching, learning on the job, etc. Now, in the context of the pandemic and the remote world of work, learning is getting digitized and personalized. It is more self-driven than ever before.

For L&D leaders and HR leaders, the responsibility is to enable their employees with resources to drive their learning.

Intel’s a product company, a technology company. Hence, continuous learning is critical for our business as well as employees’ success. Employees have to be adaptable to learning new techniques. So, our technical training is extremely important right now. During the pandemic, we realized that we had to quickly digitize a lot of our technical training content. We also had to ensure that people who are the technical experts who had to render these trainings and content were ready. We continue to ensure that we’re equipped to be flexible to deliver this content in a virtual and yet effective manner.

As virtual learning allows us to bring learning from diverse geographies to people in diverse locations, we also partnered with Harvard Business School. We worked with them for four months to design an entire leadership module on strategy. And it was a long journey, but we wanted it to be in-depth and powerful for our leaders. And we’re launching that in a few weeks. Now, it is completely virtual.

We made sure that the platforms, the methodologies, and the access to learning, and the kind of people who are delivering this learning for us were as real and as relatable and effective as they were in offline learning mode.

Learning also needs to be more interactive and that’s going to be the greatest ask from all learning platforms.

How is the role of HR leaders evolving in the new hybrid world of work?

HR leaders need to think more innovatively.  And by innovatively, I really mean they need to think about how they can apply technology to help people function more efficiently.

For example, for many years, we’ve always tracked attrition and retention in a certain way. While it’s worked for all of these years, we thought of reinventing it. We reflected on whether we can apply technologies like AI to this. Can we apply predictive analytics through AI and see how we can make more informed talent decisions? We took this problem statement and along with the IT team, we built a new AI-enabled solution to tackle attrition.

The second thing that HR leaders need to focus on is understanding the business landscape, understanding the challenges, and then correlating it and almost predicting what could be the people impact, as a result of this big worldwide change.

Third, I really believe HR leaders’ biggest lever is leadership itself.

You need to have HR, programs, processes, and mindsets that help build the leaders of the future. Everything starts with how we define leadership, what we want from our leaders, how a leader shows up, and what he or she says. And I think as HR professionals, while we are leaders ourselves, it’s very important to have a very decisive point of view, on leadership and what we expect, and therefore what kind of leadership should we be investing and building for a company and its culture.

As HR leaders we truly need to be out there and lead with fearless confidence, not arrogance. With a data-driven approach, business mindset, and the passion to innovate, HR leaders have the opportunity to rebrand themselves in the new era of work.

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